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Cities of Joy, Hearts in Pain

Cities of Joy, Hearts in Pain
Satendra Nandan
July 03
21:00 2017

Until the age of 18, I’d never visited a city. Nadi was my town and I could walk to it from Maigania.

Years later when we boarded Taki Khan’s bus from Legalega, we arrived in the middle of the town. Then we walked the one-street town as secondary school students.

Our rustic fathers rode on their horses through it with cane knives swinging from their saddles, with felt hats on their graying heads.


Invitation to Suva

Suva was a distant dream: one occasionally heard grim stories about it from one’s rich classmates who had gone to the capital of Fiji and seen the Governor’s mansion from a distance.

Then one fine day, I received a brown envelope with a note: I was asked to come to Suva for a scholarship interview at the Indian High Commission in Nina Street.

We knew no-one in the village that had gone to Suva. Finally my enterprising father discovered that one Mithai Lal , son of a Sirdar, had made a visit to Suva.

Next day Mithai Lal came; father gave him some money.

And all Mithai Lal said was: “Munua, in Suva, never leaving my hand. Holding on tight. Suva a most danger place.”

With those words, he reassured father that I was in his safe hands: he was a tractor driver in the pineapple fields. He bent down and touched my father’s toes, and we embarked on our fateful journey.

We waited for the Pacific Transport bus at the dust-laden, gravel-strewn Votualevu Junction. The bus arrived; the driver looked groggy, but the brakes of the bus screeched loudly and the bus shuddered to a halt, as if telling the passengers that they were in for a dramatic ride.

We boarded the bus around 8am and arrived at the Suva Market around 4pm. The market was full of people and the noise was incessant. Mithai Lal made enquiries and discovered that we could stay in Matanisiga Hall, a place for special visitors, for a shilling for the night.

The night became a nightmare, with mosquitoes buzzing and sucking your blood.

We were awake the whole night, amidst screams and laughter of people whose voices travelled across the thin walls with an ominous ring.

Perhaps because of that first experience of Suva, and subsequently the coups of ’87, I never grew to like it as much as three other cities in my heart: Delhi, London and Canberra. Suva is a suppurating wound in my memory.

But I’ve lived in Suva for almost 20 years; my wife and I taught there; my three children spent their childhood and youth there; both the then Fiji Parliament and the USP campus were my favourite places.


Recent London tragedies

I’m thinking of Suva because cities do become places in your heart. When I read what had happened in London, on the Westminster Bridge and a nearby market, I felt a deep sadness.

What’s London to me or me to London? I’d been there briefly as a student with my three children. The London Underground, the magnificent parks and a few bookshops remain in my mind with a sharp vividness. One of my daughters studied at the LSE.

I’d arrived there in 1970, the next day I, with a few other Commonwealth scholars, were taken on a tour of the Parliament by an MP named Harold Wilson.

In the city one day, by incredible coincidence, Jyoti and I met one of our closest friends from Delhi, now married and living close to Heathrow Airport.

It was one of the happiest re-discoveries of my friendships. In 1989, I was invited to speak by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the precincts of the House of Commons on the consequences of the two Fijian coups in 1987.

I’ve never forgotten Westminster, especially, the Houses of Parliament, for it has remained a sacred place in my mind.

The city itself was full of people from many parts of the world. Some became my friends.

I didn’t have a proper suit; so I went to a shop named Burton’s. The salesman was a migrant Kenyan sardarji who was selling jackets. I liked one, tried it, but didn’t buy it.

I came the next day; he showed it to me again and made me wear it and looked at it from all angles. But I didn’t buy it.

Next day when I arrived in the shop, he looked at me with indifference.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Fiji,’ I mumbled.

‘Okay Fuji? Where’s is it? Fuji film famous?’

I asked him to show me the jacket again.

He brought it down, put it on me and stood apart.

Finally he said in utter exasperation:

‘Arre Bhai, you’re buying a jacket not a house!’

It was a compelling argument. I bought the jacket.

These most recent killings brought many memories of London.

Today, as I’m writing, half a dozen of my closest friends live in that mega metropolis. A mega city has more than 10,000,000 people. There are around a dozen such places in the world today.


Travelling the world

So from Nadi, in my teens, I flew to Sydney, and thence in a P & O liner to Bombay via Melbourne, Adelaide, Fremantle and Colombo. And from Bombay to Delhi on a train.

I spent my most formative years in this multitudinous, ancient city when Pundit Nehru was the Prime Minister, after the terrible and tragic partition.

I spent four years there as a student; fell in love; married and taught and trained as a journalist on The Statesman daily. Two of my children were born there.

And whenever I hear some tragic incident in Delhi, I feel a deepening sense of pain. Many of my friends live there. I used to visit it almost every year.

When things went awry for some of us in Suva, Delhi beckoned me. I didn’t go because in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, a pogrom took place–as many as 3000 innocent Sikhs were massacred.

This remains the blackest blot on modern Delhi even to this day.

And in my heart. For it was a Sikh family from whose home I’d got married. Colonel Assa Singh was a doctor in the Indian Army and had retired in New Delhi. His son was my college mate. Later he became a Professor of Mathematics in USA.

And when I read about the tragedies in Delhi, I visited him at his university. His parents had died in the late 1980s.

One way of healing your heart, annealing your mind, is to revisit loved places and loving people, the living and the dead.

And feel the sadness of the wounded cities as the wind blows through your memories of trees and gardens and those little cracks in the heart.

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